Letting Science Direct My Camera

Working with botanists documenting the flora of Arizona’s West Clear Creek Wilderness

Botanist Wendy McBride collecting plant samples in the remote West Clear Creek Wilderness in southern Arizona.

When I’m out photographing, I have my own particular way of seeing the world and let my preferences for lighting, composition and subject matter form my photographic style. In other words, I choose where I want to shoot and then look for beautiful light and compositions that catch my eye to photograph.

That’s a simple way of explaining the approach to most of my photo projects. When I’m out on a magazine or commercial assignment, however, there’s a different focus for my photography, as I attempt to fulfill the needs of the story and the client. And, every so often, a situation comes along where I actually try to photograph the world as if I’m seeing through the eyes of those with whom I’m traveling.

I’ve always used this technique when photographing a range of adventure sports, but that’s simply because I was a participant in those very same sports. When that adventure is a means to document science, however, and science is the main focus, I find the recipe to making a good photo is to listen, watch, follow and learn to see the world like the scientist. What’s important to them when they look at a landscape, in turn, becomes an important subject in my images. Perhaps the biggest challenge is connecting to a science world I may know very little about.

That was the case when I joined a team of botanists on a self-supported, multiday plant collection survey in the flood channel of a remote canyon. The trip involved a week of hiking, boulder-hopping and swimming through the green wilderness of West Clear Creek in Arizona. In the canyon, I discovered a lush landscape you wouldn’t typically associate with arid Arizona. My hiking partners weren’t typical, either; they were a committed team of botanists who were participating in an intensive plant collection through the heart of the canyon’s understudied rugged riparian area.

The team leader was Wendy McBride, an adventurous 30-year-old grad student in her first year of a two-year project to record all the vascular flora in the 15,238 acres of West Clear Creek Wilderness. The study is toward completion of her MS at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Prior to our adventure, Wendy had made a dozen trips collecting plants in various sections of the canyon. This was her first thorough hike of the main canyon.

I hadn’t explored this particular canyon before, but I had been told that to walk the entire canyon in one push is a pretty fair accomplishment. This outing is what I would call a multisport adventure: Besides the 25 miles of wilderness hiking, there are many swims, including several mandatory canyon swims that are hundreds of feet long. Given my natural aversion to swimming in any water, much less through deep pools in trackless wilderness, I rank this hike as “no walk in the park.”

For a nature and adventure photographer, the West Clear Creek is stunning, but seeing this place through the eyes of serious plant people, I discovered a remarkable new world I would have missed otherwise. My cadre of professional botanists helped me identify important plant community characteristics that I then would try to weave into my photos. I could barely pronounce the names of plants that those around me would shout out to alert their mates about new discoveries. I couldn’t remember the specific names, but as I walked, climbed and even crawled down the canyon, I learned with every slow, watchful step about plants and why they grew where they did.

There’s the lush green riparian corridor of the main canyon and side canyons, the Montane Conifer Forest beginning just above the high-water line, replaced at lower elevations by Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands, and eventually at the lowest elevations, semiarid grasslands. I learned to watch for changes in plant life as we walked from north to south, sun aspects that allowed subalpine plant species to grow a stone’s throw from desert plant species. As the steep creek dropped from the higher elevations of the Mogollon Rim country at 7,000 feet to the warmer lower regions of the Verde Valley at 3,000 feet, we encountered new plants. On the fifth day, as we neared the end of the trip, Rich Crawford, one of the botanists, pointed to the first sighting of a Platanus wrightii, the Arizona sycamore.

What really impressed me about the canyon, and became my primary focus photographically, was the plant community in the disturbed areas of the canyon (or what one of the botanists called the “zone of destruction”). This region lay in the really narrow sections of the canyon under the high-water mark. Periodically, flash floods, intensified in the canyon narrows, would rip this zone practically bare of anything living, hence the nickname. Paradoxically, the zone of destruction I walked through was distinguished by quiet pools of water surrounded by verdant reeds, grasses and an almost total lack of any tree bigger in diameter than a pencil. In the zone of destruction, trees can’t survive the frequent forces of millions of gallons of flood-borne water, rocks and sand crashing through the corridor. The tree size dates to the last apocalyptic event.

In the photo here, Wendy pauses mid-creek in the zone of destruction. On her back are four days of plant collections that she needed to keep dry. She was focused on the plants around her even as she was negotiating slippery rocks and a route through a deepening pool. I climbed a cliff to get a better vantage of the landscape around Wendy.

I shot this image with my Sony RX100 camera on aperture priority and underexposed by 0.7 stops to keep the dark green foliage and pool from overexposing the image. At ISO 400, I had to carefully steady the little camera for a 1/60 second, ƒ/5.6 exposure and set my zoom lens to its widest 28mm focal length. To protect the camera, I kept it in a watertight Pelican case. Even when swimming, the camera was easy to reach and keep close at hand, clipped to the pocket of my Osprey pack.

To see more of Bill Hatcher’s photography, visit billhatcher.com.

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.